It goes without saying that FIFA by EA Sports has changed football. The acceleration of the computer game from a simple, soccer sim to a global giant that actually informs and impacts upon the actual sport of football almost defies belief. When the first game launched way back in 1993 with FIFA International Soccer, few could have expected that it would become the cultural juggernaut that it has. Now, 25 years on, it’s more famous than the organization it’s named after.
To understand the passage from niche product to must-have release, it’s worth assessing what the football world looked like in 1993 when the first FIFA came out. Developed by EA Sports Canada, it was designed for the North American market — a key factor in understanding just how far the game has come. Twenty-five years ago, the US was a football desert: there was no national league and hadn’t been for almost a decade, with no professional players outside of indoor soccer. FIFA — the organization — had awarded the 1994 World Cup to the United States but for the majority of Americans, the men’s professional game simply did not exist. It was confined to women’s soccer (which was largely amateur), to ethnic communities (who maintained playing on a local level), and to kids. In short, it wasn’t a serious sport. It isn’t hyperbole to say that, on a national cultural level, FIFA-soccer predates actual soccer in America: FIFA 95 even went so far as creating a fake American league for the game because there wasn’t an actual one to reference in real life.
How the game has helped the sport go mainstream from there is down to a combination of factors. Firstly, there is the look of the game. Most Americans have limited access to live elite soccer and thus consume it through television: FIFA consciously doesn’t look like real soccer, it looks like televised soccer, with all the bells and whistles that go with TV coverage. Creating an image of the game that incorporated the stars of world football and cast them in the same light as major American sports stars has gone a long way towards changing the image of soccer as a game for kids into a game to be considered an equal of baseball, basketball, and American football. The reality factor of FIFA covers this too: from FIFA 95 onwards, the game could bost real players, real teams, real stadiums, and motion-captured athletes. Essentially, everything that American sports gamers expected from Madden, they got in FIFA. It’s changed a lot over the years — as this compilation from 1994 to the present day shows — but the theme has been consistent throughout.
The reach of FIFA goes well beyond just football. The soundtracks have long been anticipated as much as the games, with the ability to make or break bands. Football and music were fused as never before in the mid-90s when the Cool Britannia cultural movement combined the positive of England’s hosting of Euro 96 with the zenith of Britpop: naturally, FIFA 97 lead with Britpop superstars Blur as their lead artist. It gave a platform to some groups that otherwise may never have gotten much airtime: check Kosheen’s Hide U, from FIFA 2003, for a prime example.
The FIFA 19 World Tour has sought to bring these elements together: we’ve seen Stormzy & Dapaah go head to head with Manchester United & England stars Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard.
On the other end of the scale, the FIFA 19 World Tour has seen A$AP Rocky and Odell Beckham Jnr discussing their love of soccer as kids and then FIFA as adults — it’s unimaginable that two major, mainstream US stars would be seen playing soccer in any form back in 1993 — now, they’re playing FIFA.
That FIFA has contributed massively to the growth of the game in America is one thing. Back in 1993, even fewer people could have anticipated the way that it has fed back into the wider sport and changed the way that communities with more than a century of football tradition enjoy the game. Now, we are experiencing the retirement of the last generation to have grown up in a FIFA-free environment: realistically, every player currently playing under the age of 32 grew up with the video game alongside the actual game.
The effect of this on the perception of football by footballers themselves should not be underestimated. The freedom to try things, particularly skill moves, has always been a part of FIFA, but sometimes frowned upon by pros as showboating. Now, plenty of pros appreciate the joys of pulling off a FIFA-style embarrassment of an opponent and are less afraid to try it on the field.
On top of that, players develop their own personal brands based on their performance in the game: while Americans are used to the idolatry heaped on Michael Jordan, for example, this was totally alien to European and South American football stars before the advent of FIFA. Players like Neymar and Paul Pogba have carefully crafted online personalities that almost refer back to their game alias, while others — Kylian Mbappe, Cristiano Ronaldo, Antoine Griezmann to name just three — have goal celebrations that seem designed to be replicated on FIFA.
The way that FIFA works has enabled this movement towards individual football stars. The Ultimate Team feature first brought into FIFA 2010 detaches players from teams and allows players to create their own lineups which, in turn, has created a younger generation of fans who associate with the players as much as the clubs that they play for. This has bled into the way that they consume football offline: one need only to turn on Twitter on a Champions League night to see the legion of Cristiano Ronaldo fans now watching Juventus, unencumbered by previous devotions to his former club, Real Madrid.
The FIFA train shows no signs of stopping any time soon: the latest installment FIFA 19 is rated again as one of the best games of the year and now, the FIFA 19 World Tour is taking the game to new cultural heights. Cop your copy of FIFA 19 and join in.